E-Net News

In My Words: Government transparency is being lost

Jonathan D. Jones, director of the N.C. Open Government Coalition and an instructor in Elon University's School of Communications, authored a guest column for several North Carolina newspapers about recent changes to state public record laws.

The following column appeared recently in the (Burlington, N.C.) Times-News, the Winston-Salem Journal, the (Greensboro, N.C.) News & Record, the Gaston (N.C.) Gazette, the Shelby (N.C.) Star, and the (Greenville, N.C.) Daily Reflector via the Elon University Writers Syndicate. Views are those of the author and not Elon University.

*****

Jonathan D. Jones

Government transparency is being lost
By Jonathan D. Jones - jjones86@elon.edu

As the General Assembly concludes its business for the year, it is time to take stock of changes made to North Carolina’s sunshine laws.

So far lawmakers have approved and Gov. Pat McCrory has signed seven new exemptions to the Public Records Law. Three more lurk in the recently finalized budget bill.

What government records have been cloaked with secrecy in 2015?

Several relate to new government initiatives that have the Department of Health and Human Services collecting information about patients and abuse victims. These exemptions include a new child maltreatment registry, a new requirement for doctors to report information about abortions performed after the 16th week, and a new committee tasked with reviewing maternal deaths. Those are perhaps reasonable.

The other four are harder to justify.

In an effort to restart executions, the General Assembly passed an overhaul of death penalty procedures. That included a public record exemption for the names and manufacturers of the drugs involved in carrying out executions and for the names of the people who administer the lethal dose.

No information should be shrouded from public view when the state chooses to exercise the penultimate penalty. To withhold information undermines the confidence that the public must have that the killings are done as humanely as possible.

In an effort to protect undercover police officers, the General Assembly attempted to shield some personal information about law enforcement officers. They amended the municipal and county employee personnel statutes to exempt the home addresses and emergency contact information of police officers.

Except criminals don’t learn where cops live by making a public records request to the police department, and that information was already covered by the overly broad personnel exemption. The same change inexplicably removes from the public eye records of government-owned cell phones carried by first-responders. Phone records are some of the most important information that reveals what a government employee is actually doing. Maybe that was the point.

The General Assembly also created a new exemption for usage contracts with the Ports Authority. It’s now the only entity of government in the state that can enter contracts that are completely shielded from public scrutiny. The authority had $39.2 million in operating revenue in the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2014, according to the State Treasurer’s most recent audit.  

In 2014 the city of Wilson began requiring people with alarm systems to get a permit. Then they found out those permits were public records. So what did they do about it? Ask and ye shall receive. The General Assembly created a new exemption for municipal alarm registration programs, all across the state.

The largest new exemption came at the very end of the session. During the budget process, the Senate tacked an expansion of the terrorism exemption into the bill. It would exclude “plans, schedules, or other documents” used with “executive protection and security,” which could exclude the governor’s calendar from public record. It would apply to every government executive with a security detail.  

The terrorism exemption would also be expanded to cover security plans for prisons, as well as law enforcement’s “specific security information or detailed plans, patterns or practices to prevent or respond to criminal, gang, or organized illegal activity.” This latter piece appears to dramatically expand the already broad leeway that police have to withhold information about how they respond to crime.

The budget bill even expands exemptions for school security plans. In a rewrite of the law governing how schools prepare for emergencies, the General Assembly is requiring several state agencies to collaborate on the creation of a new “school risk and response management system,” which would be exempt from disclosure under the Public Records Law. The bill also requires the creation of an anonymous tip line application. Any information that comes in through the application would be removed from public scrutiny.

A third new exemption also hid in the budget with less dramatic effect. It is part of a section of the budget that makes significant changes to the Department of Information Technology and gives the department clearer guidance on what should and shouldn’t be released to the public. The exemption covers security plans, criminal background checks of employees, and information shared by other agencies that is already exempt from the public records law.

This year’s changes are in addition to the eight new exemptions implemented in 2014, which hid information about fracking chemicals, unpublished data collected by university researchers, and complaints about agricultural pollution.

There is one small bright spot this year. At the request of the Department of Cultural Resources, the General Assembly placed a 100-year cap on how long any exemption can last. That opens up a number of 19th and early 20th century records in the State Archives for public inspection.

Despite that small ray of sunshine, the forecast does not look good for government transparency in North Carolina. The Public Records Law is being dismantled, exemption by exemption.

Jonathan D. Jones is the director of the N.C. Open Government Coalition and an instructor in the School of Communications at Elon University.

*****

Elon University faculty with an interest in sharing their expertise with wider audiences are encouraged to contact Eric Townsend (etownsend4@elon.edu) in the Office of University Communications should they like assistance with prospective newspaper op/ed submissions.

Eric Townsend,
Staff
9/21/2015 10:30 AM